Monday, 14 January 2013

Masters of War written by Eddie Robson and directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery

What’s it about: The Doctor and his travelling companion, retired army officer Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, take a random trip in the TARDIS - and land on the planet Skaro. The Doctor helped the Thals to defeat the Daleks years ago, so he is surprised to find the Thal city under Dalek occupation. He determines to help them again, but what is the Daleks' purpose in keeping the Thals alive? Does it have anything to do with the Daleks' mythical creator, named in their teachings as Davros?

Alternative Good Grief: I love this grumpy, no-nonsense alternative Doctor played by David Warner and wish we could have spent a lot more time in his company. I can fully understand why he was the only other Doctor aside from Geoffrey Bayldon’s cheeky professor to get a second airing because like Pertwee he glitters with confidence and charisma whilst being something of an asshole. He’s infuriating in a rather wonderful way and if he wanted to go around in disguise then he would so the fact that he isn’t means that he wants to stand out. The Doctor was here during the ‘Great Siege’, in fact it was his idea in the first place but he didn’t really stick around on Skaro to see how things played out. He’s made the mistake of thinking that all the Daleks have been wiped out several times. Its rather unfortunate that he thinks up a brilliant scheme to convince a Dalek that it is Davros and send it into their midst to work for them…only to have the real Davros turn up and denounce him! He never realised he had gotten into the habit of treating that Daleks as if they are beyond redemption. He genuinely believes that that isn’t the case for all creatures. The Doctor’s sympathies lie with the oppressed and if you want them you have to stop being the oppressors. Sitting up on the hill waiting to see who lives and dies isn’t really his forte, he doesn’t like asking people to do things that he isn’t happen to perform himself. He likes to nip wars in the bud as soon as possible and is bored of this one after an hour. Torture might be the easiest way to extract information but it’s the least moral and the Doctor will have no part of it. He proves to the Daleks that the information can be obtained faster and more efficiently painlessly and to ram the point home ensures he uses nothing but their technology.

Alternative Chap With Wings: Considering this was a man who bankrupted his vocation at the head of UNIT, Alistair is finding his travels through time and space rather exhilarating and that they give him a sense of purpose. The Doctor tries to convince him to leave his guns at home…without success. He’s rather cynical and doesn’t see people doing something out of the goodness of their hearts as something that is truly altruistic. He had a skirmish with the Daleks in 1972 and they polished off 42 men before they managed to finish them off, cited as evidence as Alistair’s incompetence. When it comes to a guerrilla attack on the Daleks, Alistair cannot help slipping back into an authority role and barking orders at the Thal soldiers. Like all good military men, Alistair has the ability to boil soldiers down to numbers and consider only losing a few men to a Dalek a successful enterprise. Humans can never quite shake off the need for heroics and the Brigadier is no exception. This was supposed to be a holiday for the Brig but he somehow knew it wouldn’t end up that way. The Doctor moves so quickly these days it makes his head spin. Going to war means Alistair is utilised at his best, the first in line to fight, unwilling to let sentiment get in the way of success and always having another plan up his sleeve. I can’t imagine another situation that would portray him more fulsomely. Alistair can see that the tension between the Daleks and the Thals wont abate and they need a facilitator to handle negotiations between them. The Doctor is never going to be able to sit still when there is so much to do out there so he makes the decision to volunteer on his behalf. After the Doctor, the Brigadier is by far the next best option. Its why we felt safe on the Earth even when the Doctor was off exploring other planets. Maybe its time to play Statesman for a while. Travelling with the Doctor wasn’t what he was seeking but he does think it was what he needed. After those frustrating years at UNIT he now feels as though he has made up for lost time.

Alternative Dalek Creator: ‘I could never make you loyal to me without pity…’ In creating the Daleks he has engineered an inevitability. There’s a very amusing moment when the Doctor questions how he has never heard of Davros before when he has met the Daleks before so many times…a question that our Doctor never asked in Genesis of the Daleks. I like the assertion that he could be a propaganda figure created by the Daleks to give them a backstory, a purpose for existence. Robson enjoys playing games with the Daleks creator, secondly introducing him as a fully converted Dalek that has returned to take control of his creations. This is a fake planted by the Doctor and his cohorts and the Unbound premise has allowed the writer to explore all of these otherwise impossible to realise angles with Davros and the results are fascinating. Davros does not understand why the Daleks had to come home to Skaro when they had achieved a foothold on other worlds, ones with far more resources and potential. After being rejected by the Daleks, Davros fled to the Qwatch to augment them and turn them to their highest potential. He welcomes the death of Skaro because all it has ever brought him is pain and frustration. He created the Daleks to hate and destroy everything that is different to themselves…but now he thinks that is rather a preposterous starting point for any species. They win because they believe more than anything that they will and want it so badly. In a breathtaking sequence Davros apologises to his creations for abandoning them.

Standout Performance: David Warner has such a commanding presence that pretty much everybody raises their game in his presence. Its like he inspires confidence in other actors. If you enjoyed his performance here then you simply must check out his take on Steel in the Sapphire and Steel range. Nicholas Courtney has always given 110% to anything Doctor Who has ever asked of him and with his inexhaustible charm and charisma the fans have paid him back in kind for his efforts. He is still sorely missed. Add in the ever impressive Terry Molloy he manages to rein in some of Davros’ excesses here (think Revelation rather than Ressurection) and you have a trio of central performances that automatically raise the game of this Dalek adventure.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Its tough to be a revolutionary overnight and then go back to the day job.’
‘Nobody wants to be asleep while history is being made!’
‘We did not return to Skaro to dominate the Thals. We returned to protect them.’
‘The most effective way of protecting the weak is making them work towards their own salvation. For your own safety we invading your city and subjected you to a new discipline.’
‘Perhaps that is the inevitable fate of those with high ideals. To always feel like you have failed.’

Great Ideas: We walk in on the Doctor and Alistair after they flee from an adventure where the former ran rings around their latest foe and the latter has insulted some tribes people! I really enjoyed how they kept Davros back as a surprise (rather blown by the fact that he is on the cover) and gave the Daleks a chance to reveal their bizarrely benevolent tendencies before he hogs the limelight. Whilst Skaro was once liberated by the Daleks that existed there, there were plenty more off planet that returned in their numbers and took control again. Daleks making petulant party political broadcasts has to be heard to be believed (‘he’s not the most charismatic public speaker I’ve ever heard…’). The Daleks are an intractable bunch and it would be very difficult to alter ones perception enough to alter its personality and use it as a mole within the Dalek army. The very fact that it was going against its nature means that it will no longer blend in with the others. Evolutionary patterns follow surprisingly similar paths in complete isolation from each other, creatures evolve along the same paths on entirely different worlds. It isn’t random, it finds the best path and sticks to it. There was something undoubtedly wrong about the first half of the story that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first (that’s deliberately perpetuated by the writer who doesn’t reveal the twist about the Daleks nature until nearly an hour into the production). It could be that the story is deliberately less claustrophobic than Genesis of the Daleks (which it is taking its inspiration from) or that the Daleks for all their bluster were more reasonable than usual or even that the Doctor and Alistair just weren’t quite as affected by these events as they should be. The very nature of Skaro under Dalek rule tempered by a remorse instilled in them by their creator introduces two conflicting elements that simply do not gel so watching a society that tries to cope with both is a psychological exercise that set my teeth on edge. This is an Unbound release and so is aiming for being a little different and I found myself surrendering to that uneasiness and enjoying the performances, intelligent dialogue and disquieting atmosphere. A preoccupied enemy is always easier to tackle. There’s a wonderful conflict of broadcasts between the Black Dalek and the dissident that plays out like a cross between a political debate and the audio equivalent of the civil war at the end of Evil of the Daleks. The Qwatch are ethereal creatures from another dimension, violent and ruthless and fused with technology to make themselves more powerful. The Daleks feared the Thals, they had nearly destroyed them during the war and they had no reason to believe that they now wanted to strive for peace. Daleks have always had the capacity for pity and in this universe some of them were allowed to exist as complete individuals, it was the ones who were shaped into brutal war machines that attempted to kill Davros. Daleks were designed to be singular of purpose but they could never be entirely uniform – the Black Dalek thinks that he speaks for all of the Daleks because they obey him but Davros questions that loyalty and uniformity of opinion. One of the basic principles of a Dalek is that it can be told what to think. What a captivating experiment it is to give the Daleks freedom of choice, to ask them to choose between the Black Dalek and Davros. Its where the show was heading in the mid 80s with the Imperials and the Renegades but they took away the autonomy of choice and were simply programmed to be on opposing sides. Here the individual Daleks have to make a choice. In their first campaign against Skaro the Qwatch saw Davros’ creations as a threat and so invoked a war that crippled the genius, removing him and weakening the Daleks. Sometimes a conflict can be condensed to make for more effective drama but Robson uses the length of this release to his advantage to reveal and play out the two strategies of both sides and to show them reacting convincing to each side. It feels like a genuine campaign. Ultimately the Thals betray the Daleks and not the other way around…the Daleks simply refuse to surrender when the Thals see it as the only sensible course of action.

Audio Landscape: I really appreciated the attention to detail when it came to recapturing the sound effects used in The Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks and the New Series. It’s a fascinating fusion of old and new and the sort of thing that Big Finish does so well. Its an oddly quiet production for the first half which I found quite unnerving…nowadays every Big Finish production is a feast of noise whether that is cinematic soundscapes or a blustering musical score but this played out far more like an old fashioned radio play with sound effects punctuating the silence only when necessary to tell the story. It actually exposes how overdressed some Big Finish stories can be, sound wise because the economic soundscape here created a pleasing air of disquiet the likes of which I haven’t heard in a while. When a Dalek voice suddenly punctuates the silence, it really makes you jump. The biting winds of Skaro, door opening noises, Daleks travelling, extermination blasts, snoring, sonic screwdriver, a spacecraft descending, Dalek heartbeat genuinely sounding like a heartbeat, I’ve heard complaints about the Qwatch voices but I thought it was quite an unusual new take on something that by the very limiting nature of audio (how else do you differentiate between alien species in these stories without giving each one a different voice?) has been done to death. They might be a little camp and feminine for such a devastating race but that just serves to make them more unsettling. As we head towards the conclusion Martin Johnson really gets to show us what he is capable of, providing a space battle on audio the likes of which we have never heard before or since and buoying the action up with some incredible music. Its hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the thing, it really dragged the little boy playing war games out of me. Ships screaming across space, firing, incoming train, explosions, flames crackling, cutting through the hull, screaming Qwatch, the exploding ships, bolts hitting Daleks,

Musical Cues: The music is quite scarce to begin with but as Davros starts to emerge Martin Johnson treats us to a particularly stirring, dramatic score that is begging to be heard in isolation. Which is available on the disc and has been played ad nauseum on my iPod. I love the bold, cinematic music as we head off to war…it really gets the heart thumping!

Isn’t it Odd: Unbelievably this story comes in at a staggering two and a bit hours long and Gary Russell is nowhere to be seen. I’ve always maintained that the most desirable story length for an audio adventure is an hour long (as exemplified by the continuing success of the Bernice Summerfield, Jago & Litefoot and Companion Chronicles ranges) because it gives you enough time to set up a premise, explore the characters, experience the adventure and wrap it up successfully without ever looking at the time and wondering ‘how much longer?’ You can just about stretch to an hour and a half if the story has plenty of plot elements and a decent sized cast of interesting characters. Once you move beyond that no shopping list of elements can stop the story feeling as if the running time is excessive or that it could have been pruned down into a more pleasing length. At nearly two and a half hours long there are few Big Finish stories that can match Masters of War’s length (there’s Zagreus but I would hardly use that in the defence of extended-lengthed stories) and despite the enjoyable material that would have to be cut (because much of it is very enjoyable) the very fact that it has taken me nearly a year and half longer than the other stories in this range to review is purely because of it is the length of a bible. Unless you have a really long attention span there’s no way this can be enjoyed as a whole. I would have cut this back to 90 minutes (yep that means losing over an hour of material) and produced a really tight story.

Standout Scene: It’s a shame that they held back on David Warner and Terry Molloy meeting until the last minute. It means the climax is memorable for all the right reasons but their chemistry is so strong the story may have benefited from an earlier clash of personalities.

Unbound: Such a shame that this was the last of the Unbound series because it had such potential to run and run. Its one of the ranges that I often read people asking for more of on Doctor Who forums so clearly it made an impact on its audience, for good or for ill. Mind you you’ll find stories dotted about that you could perhaps place under the Unbound banner. Gallifrey series IV is four tales with the umbrella theme of ‘what is Gallifrey…?’ We’ve recently enjoyed two adventures where Jago & Litefoot travelled with the sixth Doctor in the TARDIS which certainly falls under a ‘what if…’ premise that fans have been asking since their very first appearance in the 70s. ‘What if Doctor Who took place in another universe?’ – The Divergent Universe arc. ‘What if a companion switched Doctors?’ – Charley Pollard. ‘What if the Doctor Who stage play The Ultimate Adventure sprang further adventures’ was perhaps a question best left unanswered. And the Lost Stories range is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of ‘what if…’ because they are faithful recreations of stories that never made it to screen innovated over time by a production team blessed with hindsight.

Alternative Review: There’s a very interesting review of this story over at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide by a fellow called Stephen Maslin. I suggest you check it out because he voices the opinion of those who didn’t like this story with some eloquence. However he concludes his piece by citing other stories that do the same things as Masters of War but better which I take great exception to. I quote: If you want to hear David Warner as the Doctor, get Sympathy For The Devil. If you want a genuine Doctor Who epic, get Death Comes To Time. If you want an 'Unbound' story about Davros and the Daleks, get The Juggernauts. If you want a great Eddie Robson story, get Memory Lane, The Condemned or Grand Theft Cosmos. If you want to hear the Brigadier at his very best, get The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. None of these would be a waste of your time and money. Masters of War is.’ Sympathy for the Devil is a great story but this offers an equal, if not superior insight into the David Warner Doctor. Death Comes to Time might be epic but its also long winded, ridiculously complex and full of button pushing ideas that push it into an Unbound series of its own. The Juggernauts offers less insight into Davros and the Daleks than Master of War, although it is a great story. The Eddie Robson stories mentioned are accomplished but so is this. And as for The Spectre of Lanyon Moor featuring the Brigadier at his very best…he doesn’t do a bloody thing in it. Sorry Stephen, you had me until that wrap up of comparisons.

Result: ‘It is the Daleks who want peace!’ What if the Daleks and the Thals worked together to save Skaro? Its exactly the sort of thing that the New Series would avoid at all costs so its something to be cherished as a ‘what if…?’ one off. An elderly Doctor played by a top notch thespian with an elderly companion who just happens to be a Doctor Who stalwart. Before you even go into specifics with the story that is already an enticing hook into Masters of War. Whilst it is far, far too long (but then few Big Finish stories weren’t during this period) Masters of War is expertly conceived and structured by Eddie Robson to thrill the audience. The first half sets up a disquieting atmosphere of wrongness (a pleasant Dalek occupation?) and drops a double whammy at the first cliffhanger (the Daleks true nature and the return of Davros to restore his creations to his original vision) that takes the story in a fascinating new direction in the second half. Robson uses the premise of the Unbound series to explore some intriguing possibilities (a personable Davros, a morally ambiguous Doctor, reasonable Daleks) and allows them to play out in a traditional framework (this tale taking much of its narrative inspiration from the Daleks stories from the classic series). There’s plenty of chance to explore the psychology of the characters and the Daleks but the story lends itself to some marvellous set pieces in the second half, playing out like a ambitious space/planetary battle the likes of which were seen on Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. A bloated review for a bloated story, Masters of War is packed full of interesting ideas and new ways of looking at things that make it more than worth your (considerable) time. Clearly there was more potential to explore the adventures of the Doctor and Alistair and whilst it’s a crying shame that this should be their last adventure its great that they get an ambitious, stylish production to go out on: 8/10

No comments: